Which Way to a Better Future for Baltimore?

Baltimore Inner Harbor / RXrealty.com
Baltimore Inner Harbor / RXrealty.com

Baltimore can either preserve and build on its past or make a break with it to succeed in the future. These two competing visions for this shrinking Mid-Atlantic city of 622,000 were presented to hundreds at the Lovely Lane Church, the “mother church” of Methodism, in Baltimore, during an intellectual boxing match between contemporary architect Thom Mayne and New Urbanist planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who toured the city at the invitation of Kelly Cross, head of the Old Goucher Neighborhood Association. Their visions for Baltimore contrast, but the answer to its many economic and social woes may be a mix of both.

Plater-Zyberk’s Vision: Preserve Baltimore’s History at All Costs

Plater-Zyberk said Baltimore is a “unique, beautiful city with tremendous history. It has many beautiful parts but has been abused in recent decades; it has lost its glorious beginnings.” Despite this loss, though, the city’s bones are still solid. “Economically, it can have a terrific future because it’s in the right location, with the great positioning of its port and its natural waterfront context.”

Baltimore should capitalize more on that great waterfront. “The city needs to take better advantage of it by restoring its environment and improving public access. The boardwalk goes, what, 20 feet inland? There could be so much more if the city unearthed hidden waterfront streams and restored wetlands.”

Inner harbor boardwalk / EDSA Planning
Inner harbor boardwalk / EDSA

Baltimore’s other great asset beyond the port and waterfront is its grid, which covers more than 50 percent of its built environment. “Connectivity is a valuable resource and needs to be maintained at all costs and brought back in where it was removed.” Leveraging the grid, corner stores can be put back in. “Kids can play stick ball in the streets again.” Neighborhood walkability is the root of all local development.

1890 Map of Baltimore / Rootsweb
1890 Map of Baltimore / Rootsweb

Another asset is its historic built environment. “Baltimore is the city of beautiful historic buildings and monuments and you encounter them everywhere as you walk. Baltimore must maintain its historic character, this universality in the built environment. There is no need to mix it up everywhere with contemporary architecture. There can be areas for innovation. The old will shrink inevitably, so we need to protect that.”

Washington Monument and Mt. Vernon Place / Federal Highway Administration
Washington Monument and Mt. Vernon Place / Federal Highway Administration

Plater-Zyberk then mentioned Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr. who used preservation as an economic strategy to turn Charleston, South Carolina, into one of the county’s major tourist destinations. Baltimore can chose this future, too, but it “needs to stop muddling along like it has been for decades.”

Mayne’s Vision: Integrate Baltimore into the Global Economy

“Baltimore has an abundance of history. The city should take care of some of it, but there are an overabundance of issues. The question is how to make Baltimore sustainable, given its social, environmental, and political context. Cities are a product of civic, cultural, and political forces,” and they are rapidly globalizing. Cities like Shanghai, New York City, and Sao Paulo show the “vast connectivity of cities and the need for infrastructure that can connect to the broader context.”

Countering Plater-Zyberk, Mayne argued that “the precinct, district, township, or neighborhood — the idea of this — is dead. Kids no longer play stick ball in the streets.” To succeed, small cities like Baltimore must have “radical heterogeneity or pluralism. Everything everywhere is now a must.”

As for the call for historic preservation at all costs, he questioned whether older is always best. “There is no common idea of beauty. Bringing together new and old like London does is the model.”

London's traditional and contemporary architecture / Reddit
London’s traditional and contemporary architecture / Reddit

“Visiting Baltimore is like going back to another time. The 21st century isn’t here and needs to be. Baltimore needs a Tesla,” referring to the high-tech, electric vehicle built in California. Baltimore needs to be the place where new, sustainable technologies are created so the city can attract new jobs and find a path forward in a highly inter-connected world.

From there, the debate continued. Here are some choice moments in the back-and-forth:

Plater-Zyberk: “Not all cities are going to be Shanghai. The town, village still successfully exists. They are not just places to visit, but people live there. Baltimore is a small city, a city of villages. Walking to the corner store can continue to be possible.”

Mayne: “Baltmore needs a large-scale vision for how it fits into the global environment. People don’t live in a village, they live in the globe.”

On infill development:

Plater-Zyberk: “Baltimore needs to fill in the gaps with great buildings at the scale of what’s there. Regulations can be changed to make it easier to do small things, minimally, with little money.”

Mayne: “Small-scale interventions always help, but that’s not the issue. Leadership is needed to solve the big problems. You need big solutions for big problems.”

On Maryland’s new initiative to tear down thousands of abandoned, derelict properties in Baltimore:

Plater-Zyberk: “After all of this destruction, the city needs to bring some things back surgically. The city needs to make plans at the neighborhood scale.”

Mayne: “This destruction is a signal of immense sadness and a tragedy. The city has to figure out how to contract but be strategic at the same time. A city can shrink, but the infrastructure has already been put in the ground. Running a line to one house or a row of houses on a block costs the same. This infrastructure represents a huge amount of capital. There has to be an upside or it will be a continuing disaster.”

And, finally, on their ultimate philosophies on cities:

Mayne: “The city is chaos and can’t be understood.”

Plater-Zyberk: “There is overall chaos, but we can create moments of coherence. These victories are happy places.”

Plater-Zyberk: “I’m Jane Jacobs and he’s Robert Moses.”

Ultimately, these kind of high-level, visionary discussions show the problem with leading design-thinkers helicoptering in for the day to lay out a city’s future. Baltimore already has a number of promising revitalization plans underway. According to ABC News, the city has green-lighted $2 billion in commercial and residential redevelopment just over the past year and a half, including a $1 billion mixed-use development in Canton and Harbor Point. There is a comprehensive plan for revamping the out-dated Inner Harbor, the city’s central tourist mecca and business center. Landscape architects with Mahan Rykiel Associates are redesigning a key plaza and street intersection and a harborfront park, among other projects. There have been some phenomenal new public schools built in the city — Henderson-Hopkins in East Baltimore is worth highlighting — with more to come.

But the story remains how to spread the revitalization in an equitable way in all parts of the city, particularly West Baltimore. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has announced a $700 million effort to pull down thousands of abandoned homes and replace them with large lots, which may present redevelopment and local employment opportunities, and green spaces. And then there’s the expanding University of Maryland BioLab that could spur redevelopment. The lack of jobs remains the critical issue in much of Baltimore.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16 – 31)

A new public square in the Fawwar refugee camp in the West Bank, June 2014 / Adam Ferguson/The New York Times/Redux via NY Review of Books
A new public square in the Fawwar refugee camp in the West Bank, June 2014 / Adam Ferguson/The New York Times/Redux via NY Review of Books

Municipality Updating Anchorage’s Dated Land Use Plan Alaskan Public Media, 3/17/16
“The most-recent projections – which have been adjusted since the price of oil has declined – anticipate Anchorage’s population will grow between 15,000 and 45,000 people within the next 25 years.”

A Closer Look at Oceanwide Center’s Proposed Public Open Space Hoodline, 3/22/16
“The team behind the massive office, hotel and residential development proposed for First and Mission streets, Oceanwide Center, has grand plans for their open space requirement. If approved, 47 percent of the project’s ground-floor area will be privately-owned public open space, accessible to anyone.”

Why Landscapers Are Planting Crops on the Arch GroundsThe St. Louis Dispatch, 3/22/16
“Crews planted about 400,000 last fall. By the end of October, tufts of bright green had sprouted in unruly rows all over the national park. They’ve now largely decomposed. But they did what they were supposed to: They sent their thick tap roots almost two feet deep. They froze this winter and died. And they left hundreds of thousands of long, skinny holes in the ground, softening soil that has been compacting for decades.”

Shade Plants: Gardening in the Dark The Chicago Tribune, 3/24/16
“Sunlight is overrated. Sure, lilacs, and lavender need hours of sunlight to thrive. But give us shade plants such as hostas, ferns, tree peonies, and lacecap hydrangeas luxuriating in a dappled shade, and we’re over the moon.”

Child’s PlayThe Hindu, 3/25/16
“Sourav Kumar Biswas, while studying landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, wrote, ‘By placing children as the focus of our planning and design processes, we will be designing for those who are the most vulnerable. A neighborhood that improves the ability of children to move and play freely while growing up without health risks is also one that is safe for women and accessible to the old.’”

The Craving for Public Squares The New York Review of Books, April Issue
“The twenty-first century is the first urban century in human history, the first time more people on the planet live in cities than don’t. Experts project that some 75 percent of the booming global population will be city dwellers by 2050.”

A Sunken Skyscraper in Central Park Is the Worst Idea in HistoryCityLab, 3/26/16
“Never mind that tearing up Central Park is a non-starter. Set aside the fact that it’s one of the most beloved parks in the world. Disregard all the structural and infrastructural reasons why it would be next to impossible to strip Central Park down to bedrock.”

Lynn Wolf; Brought Color and Zest into Lives of Others The Boston Globe, 3/30/16
“Ms. Wolff, who combined a seriousness of purpose with a serious pursuit of fun, died March 20, the day after turning 60, in Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers of cancer that had metastasized. She had lived in Boston for many years.”

Poverty Is Now a Regional Problem

Abandoned homes in West Baltimore / Reddit
Abandoned homes in West Baltimore / Reddit

Inequality is only growing across the U.S. as incomes continue to diverge. This disparity is now becoming geographic, as cities and suburbs see a “spatial pulling apart” into rich and poor zones. Poverty is now a regional problem. To close the gap, Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Mayor of Baltimore, and Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, discussed possible solutions at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

According to Kneebone, one impact of the Great Recession was the erosion of incomes at the bottom. “Poor people have become poorer.” This trend is seen even more strongly for people of color. “The income gap for people of color is much greater.” As the poor are further segregated, impacts are seen across many areas. Their communities have lower quality services, including poorer-quality schools and housing, higher crime rates, and worse health outcomes. “The income of a neighborhood is directly connected with their mental and physical health.”

Mayor Rawlings-Blake said income inequality has worsened because our society’s goal is no longer “full, optimal employment” but increasing corporations’ shareholder value, which “doesn’t take into account human capital.” This means the “least of us are cast away.” In West Baltimore, which saw major riots after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police custody, there are systemic reasons for poverty. With the end of manufacturing in the Baltimore region, many good jobs disappeared. When young African American men run into trouble with the police and get an arrest record, they find it that much hard to find employment. When they can’t find a job and fall behind on child support payments, they have a double-strike against them with employers. “They feel a sense of anguish and like there is no way out. As a result, there is a lot of anger.”

Kneebone said suburbs now have a poverty problem, too. “We often think of the inner city or rural areas when we think about poverty, but it’s in the suburbs as well.” From 2000-2014, suburbs have seen a 66 percent increase in poverty. “There are now more poor people outside cities than within them.” She pointed to hundreds of suburbs of Chicago with concentrated poverty, as well as places like Ferguson, Missouri, where the poor population has doubled in recent years. These places, she said, are “playing catch-up and have a constrained response to the problem. This is because they have more challenges, but their tax base hasn’t increased.”

Essentially, then, poverty is now a regional problem — “it’s no longer urban or suburban.” To address this systemic problem, Kneebone called for a “scaled approach that addresses the intersected issues that cross jurisdictions: affordable housing, but also access to jobs and child care.” But she added that “just adding affordable housing or public transit alone may not yield equitable outcomes. These tools have to be specifically designed to help the most marginalized, and too often they aren’t. The poor need rides so they can get to work.” Also, greater opportunities for social mobility are needed. People from poorer communities can use “vouchers or subsidies” to move to higher-income communities. Studies have shown these kind of efforts can yield significant results, particularly for children of poor residents who move into wealthier neighborhoods.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake said in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, the Baltimore city government accelerated efforts to spur local hospitals and universities to hire locally. “We must use our collective strength to help everyone in the city. We have to find pathways to employment for more people.” Under her term, she claims, the city has added 20,000 jobs and cut unemployment 33 percent, while winning $1.1 billion in investment for new schools, and pushing through a blight elimination plan that will take down thousands of abandoned, derelict homes.

The city is also moving forward with an aggressive program to reduce food deserts, which she links to diabetes-induced obesity, the leading cause of death in many poor neighborhoods. “The health disparities are terrible — it’s a gap of 20 years in lifespan from one zip code to the next.” So the Mayor has piloted a new program that will bring “mobile food delivery services to senior centers, which will act as hubs, where people can order fresh produce online and pay with EBT or food stamps. It’s a virtual supermarket.” There are additional subsidies that enable people with food stamps to double the value of those stamps when they go to farmer’s markets. Along with this effort, there is a new urban agriculture tax credit to turn some of those empty lots into farms, much like Detroit has done.

Both called for poor, minority Americans to make their voices heard more loudly in the political process, particularly at the local level, where problems are more likely to be addressed. But Mayor Rawlings-Blake admitted that it’s very challenging to persuade people to get involved. “U.S. politics is dominated by the wealthy. How do you get disenfranchised people involved in the process?” In places where there has been recent demographic shifts, like Ferguson, “there is lower political engagement by the people who are new to that community” — the poorer African Americans who have recently moved there. As a result, their voice and needs aren’t heard and they erupt in anger.

And too often, the attitude is “the government is the enemy.” But Mayor Rawlings-Blake said “that’s a barrier we need to get through. Many feel abandoned and are angry about it. But we can’t hate our way to better or demonize people who are different from us. How can we work together? How are people at the national level going to solve this? No one is talking about this.”

Adelaide Will Plant 100,000 Square Meters of Greenery by 2020

Adelaide Design Manual
Adelaide Design Manual

Only a few years ago, if you mentioned the words sustainability, green, or global warming you were probably met with an eye roll and maybe some sort of off-handed remark about being a hippy. Now, the opposite has happened: it’s totally uncool to be disinterested in the environment, as celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio bring climate change to the foreground for the public.

Locally, the Adelaide City Council in South Australia is leading by example. Our new Adelaide Design Manual provides strategic and technical guidance for designing streets, squares, parks, with a strong focus on greening and water-sensitive urban design. The design manual will help the city achieve ambitious goals identified in the 2016-2020 draft strategic plan: to become one of the world’s first carbon-neutral cities; plant an extra 100,000 square meters of greenery by 2020; and provide a path to a real reduction in city temperatures by 2040.

The Adelaide Design Manual outlines a greener approach when designing for Adelaide and ensures consistency across projects at all scales. This means whether you are working on a garden, green wall, or multi-million dollar project, the principles for greening are exactly the same.

These principles include:

  • Considering and integrating greening across the city and at all stages of public space design;
  • Creating a connected network of greening;
  • Reinforcing the urban character through thoughtful approaches to greening;
  • Harnessing the multiple functions greening can provide through shade, shelter, stormwater management, and traffic calming;
  • Creating conditions for the success and longevity of greening by providing the right conditions for greenery to survive;
  • Using greenery to provide beautiful, comfortable, and inviting spaces that enhance the city’s social and economic value; and
  • Maximizing the seasonal benefits of greening for high-activity streets and enhanced building performance.

So much of our daily life is shaped around the public spaces we inhabit. The Adelaide Design Manual’s approaches will help the city improve these spaces, enabling greater accessibility, community health, and safety, and promoting a stronger sense of cultural identity and neighborhood character, supporting a sense of civic pride. In a warming world, the successful implementation of green infrastructure will bring more people outdoors and boost their well-being.

Some approaches will cost more up front, but realize savings in the long term. For example, Adelaide City Council’s Go Green with Public Lighting project has swapped 1,500 lights from halogen to LED lighting, which have a lower life cycle cost and will save the city $150,000 annually over their lifetime.

Adelaide Go Green with Public Lighting / ADLT.com.au
Adelaide Go Green with Public Lighting / ADLT.com.au

The Adelaide Design Manual will transform Adelaide into a design-led city, focusing on quality, not quantity, through gradual and long-term change.

The manual will provide the foundation and clear direction for the future of Adelaide as one of the world’s great small cities.

This guest post is by Suzanna Parisi, Adelaide City Council.

A Vision for Smarter Public Spaces

Smarter public spaces / Arup
LQD WiFi / frog

Some designers and engineers want to bring high-speed Wi-Fi to as many public parks and plazas as possible. But instead of expanding the style of the unobtrusive yet freely-available Wi-Fi found in New York City’s Bryant Park, they want to make a statement with advertisement-laden towers that appear to be about 15-feet tall and could be used to charge your phone or access useful neighborhood information via a high-tech interface, a sort of modern-day bulletin board. Their thinking is these towers will act as beacons to attract visitors, who can interact with them 24-7. In a session at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, Randy Ramusack, founder of LQD Wifi, Daniel Holtzman with frog, and Francesca Birks with Arup discussed this possible vision of “smarter public spaces” created through LQD’s Palo.

Computing has rapidly evolved over the past few decades. Mainframes found in big data centers have morphed into hand-held mobile devices supported by cloud-based data services. “But the cloud is not helping communities,” asserted Ramusack. “More neighborhood information is needed to boost community interaction.”

He explained that when he picks up one of those free neighborhood newspapers to find out what’s going on in the part of New York City he lives in, he goes to more local events. So what if a glowing tower in the park showed you ads about those events, or even pushed you notifications as you walked by?

And LQD Palo could also address more basic equity issues. Vast number of people in cities still don’t have Internet access at home. In New York City, about a third of the population does without. What if these people could go to this interactive kiosk to do basic job searches? This is what Ramusack envisions for the future.

The interaction with these smart towers will also need to be two-way, said Holtzman, with frog, which designed the Palo. He thinks the high-speed connectivity these towers offer can only “further enhance the social activities that already happen in public spaces.” But others may say that it will only drive people to spend more time on their devices, sitting alone yet together, which is now a sad but common sight in so many public spaces.

Holtzman said these interactive kiosks need to be urban and contemporary but also customizable so they fit the feel of a city and perhaps the public park or plaza they inhabit. He even sees them doing well on streets or in malls and college campuses. Advertisements would be needed to finance the systems, which can’t be cheap. According to Ramusack, “targeted advertisements are viewed as less annoying, so Palo needs to display ads relevant to the places they are in.”

There are also security and privacy issues that will have to be addressed. Today, Wi-Fi hotspots are dangerous zones for transferring personal data. But Ramusack was optimistic these issues can be fixed and thinks implementing these high-profile devices would be a huge win for any city’s mayor. “Tech can make you look good. Wi-Fi gets you re-elected.” Old pay phones are already becoming Wi-Fi hubs, at least in New York City. Link NYC will replace 7,500 pay phone booth with free Wi-Fi stations, local phone calls, and phone charging.

Palo may be better suited for the streets than the middle of Central Park. Who wants to see large flashing ads in the middle of their peaceful respite from the city? Likely no one. But they could be a draw if well-incorporated into plazas and put near existing park facilities, like perhaps the bathrooms.

Has Landscape Architecture Failed?

Welcome to the Anthropocene / The Topograph

“A sense of crisis has brought us together. What is merely offensive or disturbing today threatens life itself tomorrow. We are concerned over misuse of the environment and development which has lost all contact with the basic processes of nature… A key to solving the environmental crisis comes from the field of landscape architecture, a profession dealing with the interdependence of environmental processes” — I. McHarg, C. Miller, G. Clay, C. Hammond, G. Patton, and J. Simonds. 1966. A Declaration of Concern.

In 1966, Campbell Miller, Grady Clay, Ian McHarg, Charles Hammond, George Patton, and John Simonds marched to the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and declared that an age of environmental crisis was upon us and that the profession of landscape architecture was a key to solving it. Their Declaration of Concern launched, and to this day underpins the workings of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), now headquartered in Washington. To mark its 50th anniversary, the LAF will hold a summit at the University of Pennsylvania involving over 60 leading landscape architects from around the world. Delegates are being asked to deliver new declarations (manifestos if you will) about the profession’s future. Drawing upon these statements, the LAF Board will then redraft the original 1966 Declaration of Concern so that it serves to guide the profession into the 21st century.

On one level, redrafting the declaration is relatively straightforward: it would simply need to stress the twinned global phenomena of climate change and global urbanization — issues which were less well understood in 1966. On another level however, the redrafting of the declaration is profoundly complicated, because if it is to be taken seriously then a prerequisite to doing so is to ask why, after 50 years of asserting landscape architecture as “a key” to “solving the environmental crisis” does that crisis continue largely unabated? Seen in this light the declaration can be read as an admission of failure. Consequently, we must ask if McHarg and his colleagues were justified in placing such a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of landscape architects why we have we failed so spectacularly to live up to their challenge?

The immediate response is to discredit the question; for surely the so-called environmental crisis is too general and enormous for any single profession to “solve” and then be measured against. The environmental crisis is the by-product of the ways in which the industrial revolution (modernity) has spread globally, beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and continuing on as capitalism exploits resources for profit and growing populations work to free themselves from poverty. This, arguably, is completely out of landscape architecture’s — or for that matter any other profession’s — control.

Be that as it may, many landscape architects subscribe to McHarg’s assertion — made repeatedly in his manifesto Design with Nature which soon followed the Declaration — that landscape architects are “stewards of the earth.” If that is so then they have a prima-facie responsibility to answer for the continued denudation of the planet since 1966. Even if we reign in the question of failure to something more tangible than the entire environment — say just land-use in North America — then landscape architecture still appears to have largely failed in mitigating the most basic elements and causal forces of environmental degradation. In fact, it is hard to think of any environmental topic which landscape architecture could claim to have substantively improved over the last 50 years.

In our defense, we might argue that landscape architecture is a very young and very small profession and an even smaller academy. We can also protest, as many do, that other, more established disciplines — such as engineering and architecture — have restrained our rise to environmental leadership. We can argue that the status quo of political decision-making makes it impossible for us to meaningfully scale up our operations and work in the territory where our services are needed most. These justifications (or excuses) all contain aspects of the truth but here, by way of self-reflection on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the original Declaration of Concern, we inquire more fundamentally into the evolution of the profession’s theoretical basis over its life time. Via this route we will return critically to the original declaration and argue that landscape architecture over the last 50 years is less a story of abject failure and more one of a discipline taking the time that has been needed to prepare for a more significant role in this, the twenty-first century.

The proliferation of theory and practice that emerged in response to McHarg’s ecological method in the latter half of the twentieth century can be organized through the archetypal paradigms of knowledge production; that is, through the competing epistemologies of positivism and constructivism. Positivism — the notion that objectivity is possible, that knowledge is constructed through empirical deduction, and that such deduction could lead to generalizable Truths – constitutes the knowledge paradigm within which McHarg’s ecological method evolved. For landscape architects, this meant that “there was a design for the earth, which made it for every form of life that has existed, does now exist, and all imaginable forms in the future” and that an intervention was “right when it [tended] to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” This form of landscape positivism evolved into the contemporary forms of thought and action known as landscape performance, in which the ecological function of landscapes is measured, optimized, and even monetized; urban metabolism, in which broader urban systems are conceived as systems of stocks and flows to be measured and stream-lined; green infrastructure, in which landscapes large and small are designed to deliver a suite of ecosystem services; and to a lesser degree urban ecology, in which the relationship between social and natural systems form a more descriptive than prescriptive field of study. Put another way, landscape positivists argue that the solution is “out there” — finding it is simply a matter of empirical study and that relative equilibrium between natural and cultural systems is the aim.

Alternatively, Constructivism — the philosophy premised upon the notion that objectivity is a mirage, that knowledge is socially and inductively constructed, and that such inductions have little relevance outside of a very specific context — constitutes the knowledge paradigm within which reactions to McHarg’s positivism emerged. By the 1980’s in the “deconstructionist” phase of post-modernity, designers began to question McHarg’s prescriptive method, asking: Design with which nature exactly and according to whose values? Simultaneously, in practice the profession became predominantly involved in the design production of public, urban space; denatured places where McHargian land suitability analysis has only limited, if any applicability. In such places, phenomenological theories such as genius loci as well as attention to human behavior, aesthetics, and innovative construction techniques were found to be more inspiring and more useful. During the 1980’s the sublime art work which emanated from a generation of so called land artists was also brought to landscape architecture’s attention, reminding us of the historical depth and poetic potential of our medium.

In this vein in 1997, James Corner, ASLA, launched a critique that the “continual emphasis upon rational prowess — often at the exclusion of phenomenological wonderment, doubt, and humility — fails to recognize the very minor degree to which the combined landscape architectural constructions around the world have affected the global environment.” He argued that landscape architectural theory ought “…to find its basis less in prescriptive methodology and formulaic technique than in the realm of perception, phenomenology, and the cultural imagination.” This is to say that the staggering complexity of social-ecological systems and the inherent subjectivity of creative perception rendered McHarg’s notion of design as evolutionary fitness moot; positioning the designer as more of an artful interpreter than a landscape scientist.

Corner’s remarks echoed statements made a few years earlier by McHarg’s nominal antithesis, the consummate landscape architect Peter Walker, FASLA. Responding to allegations of environmental disinterest in his work, in 1995 Walker expressed regret that “… we’ve been held up by our fellows as being somehow culpable, but actually we’re a very small part of this whole problem.” He pointed out that with their “parks” landscape architects only impact about 0.02 per cent of the earth’s surface. Walker seems however to have missed the point: for whereas he used the profession’s puny territorial impact to absolve it of any significant environmental responsibility, from the perspective of the LAF’s founding fathers he just provided the statistical confirmation of its abnegation. Indeed, landscape architecture can not ignore the fact that in the same time that it has produced designs for Walker’s 0.02 per cent of the world’s surface, the global conservation community under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has by now legally secured an extraordinary 15.3 per cent of the planet as protected areas.

This raises the crucial question of landscape architecture’s professional identity and its scope: for if we follow Walker’s delineation that landscape architecture is in reality a profession more or less limited to the production of small, rarefied sites such as gardens, parks, and plazas then landscape architecture is – as its name suggests – most akin to the high design discipline of architecture, not planning or environmental science. For Walker landscape architecture is a public art and as such the environmental crisis is not its yardstick. As such we have not failed at all. On the contrary, over the last 50 years we can see that landscape architecture’s contribution to the subject of designing public space and creating ‘a sense of place’ in the wake of modernism has been a story of great success. In much of the the post-industrial, developed world, the transformation of the public realm into attractive, inclusive, and multifunctional places by landscape architects has been perhaps the most salient feature of post-modern urbanism. The problem remains however that this work is materially insignificant when compared to the reality of the “crisis” identified in the LAF’s original Declaration of Concern.

To try and broach this troubling discrepancy, what McHarg and later the landscape urbanists realized was that if post-modern landscape architecture was ever to transcend its history and be more than the design of gardens, parks, and plazas in locations predetermined by others, then the profession needed to “jump the garden fence” and somehow take on the city as a whole. In the case of McHarg, following in the lineage of Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford, this meant zooming out and placing the city in its regional context. This in turn inspired his methodological veneration of large-scale landscape systems as the ideal determinants of urban form.

Recoiling from McHarg’s positivism and New Urbanism’s reactionary, neotraditional aesthetics, in the early twenty first century landscape urbanists began to reconceive of previously stable notions of the city, nature, and landscape. Firstly, that thing called “the city” as a bastion of culture opposed to nature was conceptualized reinterpreted as a ubiquitous and hybridized combination of both; a new condition Neil Brenner labelled as “planetary urbanism.” Secondly, landscape urbanists found themselves mainly working in brownfield situations where “the environment” or “nature” had to be re-invented, not simply protected. Thirdly, landscape urbanists, along with everyone else were enveloped by neo-liberal economic restructuring, against which state sponsored large-scale (master) planning, at least in North America, was increasingly ineffectual.

So, whereas McHarg had zoomed out so as to control and direct the city in terms of its bioregion, landscape urbanists, for better or worse, realized they had to “get inside” the logistics of both shrinking and sprawling cities if ever they were to harness and redirect those forces toward more ecologically and socially just ends. Put simply, if they were to do more than just design post industrial parks and the usual repertoire of small public commissions, landscape urbanists had to also become urban designers and urban planners. It is no mistake then that Waldheim has, for the last decade or so, set about constructing a lineage of landscape architecture (via Olmsted, Wright, Hilberseimer, Branzi, Frampton and Koolhaas), which champions landscape architects as “the urbanists of our age.”

Substantiating this big claim has however proven difficult for the landscape urbanists: for not only have other disciplines not so easily given over the keys to the city, but landscape urbanism’s own adherents have been largely unable to substantiate the movement’s urban design aspirations with built work. To date, landscape urbanism has not been convincingly applied to at least three major forms of contemporary urbanization; mega-regional decentralization, suburban and peri-urban sprawl, and exploding informal settlement patterns in the developing world. This is not to say that the theory is flawed, on the contrary landscape urbanism is well suited to these challenges, but it seems hard to sustain the argument that  landscape architects are the urbanists of the age when they have so little to do with its major twenty first century characteristics.

In any event, hypothetically the question becomes what sort of city would landscape urbanists create if they could and in what way will it fulfill the environmental mandate of the original Declaration of Concern? The predictable answer is of course that they will create a green and “sustainable” city. Indeed, for much of the life of the Declaration of Concern, and especially since the Brundtland Report of 1987 “sustainability” has been a cure-all expression for everything the environmental crisis entails. In this sense, sustainability operates as a form of contemporary utopianism, literally a utopos meaning a good place, which is no place. Along these lines we argue that the sustainable city is an impossibility. Why? Because it is predicated on a stable-state view of the world.

The world view that idealizes equilibrium, harmony, and stability has roots in early twentieth century models of ecosystems, where it was thought that if left to their own devices natural systems tend inexorably toward stable climax states via the process of succession. During the era in which McHarg and the LAF envisioned such a harmonious relationship between humans and nature, mainstream ecological thought believed that systems could and should be stable if only we could remove human disturbance. But the science of ecology in the last 50 years has evolved away from the notion of stability and towards one of indeterminacy and resilience. Now, all of the ecological and physical sciences tell us that nature is chaotic, something we can only partially predict. If this is true, then how could humanity ever expect to achieve a McHargian balance with nature? Understood as a perfect end-state, sustainability is what systems theorists such as Donella Meadows describe as the “seventh archetype of systemic failure”: seeking the wrong goal. In other words, it is not that landscape architecture has failed to bring about sustainability — it is that sustainability is the wrong model!

In the wake of sudden chaotic events such as stock-market crashes, earthquakes, and 100-year storm events resilience theory has emerged as a more realistic theory of environmental and cultural change. Unlike the teleology of sustainability, resilience theory stresses adaptation to constant change and the ability to cope within a certain range, with that change. One of the most attractive attributes of resiliency as a new design paradigm is that it also operates in full-recognition of its short-comings. It is also organized around the idea of coping capacity — or the ability of cities, people, and ecosystems to cope, persist, and co-evolve with change and disturbance. Rather than working deductively — as sustainable development principles might — to superimpose an image of “good” upon a place and then work to reshape that place in a preferred image, resilience theory works from the local asset base outwards. For some this could be construed as sustainability without hope, a dystopia where the best we can do is calculate risk, but in its incipient stages as a theory of urbanism we prefer to think of it as design now getting closer to the way the world really works.

Considering our historical moment one is reminded of the incredible optimism with which the moderns announced theirs. In 1920 the great architect Le Corbusier launched his journal L’esprit nouvea with the declaration: “There is a new spirit: it is a spirit of construction and synthesis guided by a clear conception … A great epoch has begun.” A mere 46 years later a small group of landscape architects would declare that epoch as one of environmental crisis. And now, precisely 50 years later as we acknowledge their original Declaration of Concern the International Commission on Stratigraphy is expected to formally announce the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch: a new geological period defined by the fact that the earth’s systems are now fundamentally and irreversibly altered by human activity.

The philosophical and practical consequences couldn’t be greater: in short, Nature, as Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, noted, is no longer that ever-providing thing “out there,” it is, for better or worse, the world we have created and the world we are creating. The landscape of the Anthropocene is one of permanent ecological crisis. As such the Anthropocene is overwhelming, but since it is by definition a human creation, the Anthropocene is some thing we must take responsibility for, something we can design. This doesn’t automatically sanction the hyper modernity of geoengineering planetary systems but it does return us, humbly and critically to McHarg’s concept of stewardship.

As sketched in this essay, from the last 50 years of landscape architecture we have two dominant epistemological paradigms; positivism and constructivism; and three models of professional identity and scope; the landscape architect as artist (Walker), the landscape architect as regional planner (McHarg), and the landscape architect as urbanist (Waldheim). Rather than see these as competing models cancelling each other out, perhaps what we have really learned from the last 50 years is that each is somewhat incomplete without the other. If however we make a concerted effort to combine these various paradigms and models, we begin to give credence to the notion of landscape architecture as a uniquely holistic discipline, one especially well-suited to engage with the contemporary landscape of planetary urbanization and climate change.

So has landscape architecture failed? Yes and no! The small discipline of landscape architecture may not yet have impacted vast territories but it should be acknowledged for its lofty ethical concerns and for ranging so far and so wide in its pursuit of a relevant professional identity. And if in that pursuit it has been stretched too thin too far then rather that admonish it for failure, we see the last 50 years as a necessary process of preparation for this historical moment. For this is now landscape architecture’s century — all the major issues of the times are at root about how we relate to land — and if by the end of it we are still small, weak and ineffectual, and if the world is a worse place than it is now, then we will only have ourselves to blame.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania (PennDesign) and an LAF Board member, and Billy Fleming, a doctoral candidate in the Department of City Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is conducting case study research on the use of natural features in climate change adaptation within cities along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Read a full version of the paper with footnotes.

10 Parks That Changed America

PBS will broadcast a new documentary, 10 Parks That Changed America, on April 12th. Produced by WTTW in Chicago and featuring Geoffrey Baer, the show identifies the 10 most influential urban parks in the country, from the era of America’s early settlers to the present day. In a preview at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Baer and show producer and writer Dan Protess announced the 10 parks selected by WTTW and its expert advisors, including Thaisa Way, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Washington; Walter Hood, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of California, Berkeley; and Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director of city park excellence at the Trust for Public Land and author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities.

Here are the parks they settled on:

1) The Squares of Savannah, Georgia
2) Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
3) Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts
4) Central Park, New York City, New York
5) Chicago’s Neighborhood Parks, Chicago, Illinois
6) The Riverwalk, San Antonio, Texas
7) Overton Park, Memphis, Tennessee
8) Freeway Park, Seattle, Washington
9) Gas Works Park, Seattle, Washington
10) The High Line, New York City, New York

At the preview, Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and Harnik discussed the list. Somerville said the parks were all created to solve complex environmental, social, or economic problems, and those problems are still here today. “Savannah’s squares were created with the belief that everyone should have access to a park. Today, we see the same ideas underlying the environmental justice movement and the quest for clean air and clean water for everyone.”

She argued the one important park left out of the list was the National Mall in Washington, D.C. because it’s a symbol of the “accessibility of our democracy.” The National Mall shows the “power of places to bring people together. It was hugely influential in setting the public park or plaza as the place where people get together to express themselves. It’s the epitome of that.”

Protess said it was challenging to select just 10 parks that changed America and admitted many good candidates for the list had to be left on the cutting room floor. “Parks were selected for their influence, but we also needed to represent diverse geographies and include a diversity of forms, so it wasn’t all trees and grass.”

Somerville and Harnik were largely positive about the state of American urban parks. Somerville said “most urban park bonds pass. While Americans seem to be anti-government and hate spending these days, they are happy to put money into parks because they know how much they do for communities.” Harnik argued that “with the further densification of cities, every city now knows they need good parks to compete.” He said young people moving into the cities are looking for “places to play” and “empty nesters,” or retirees, moving back into cities from the suburbs, are looking for “some of the green space they had in suburbia.”

They also argued that showcase parks like the High Line in New York City and Millennium Park in Chicago aren’t being built at the expense of neighborhood parks either. Somerville said “the momentum for more parks is greater than that.” And Harnik, who ranks urban parks with his ParkScore tool, said “there is now a political movement for parks. There is a whole group of people who think parks are cool and important and they are bringing their voices.” In particular, dog owners are revitalizing the parks movement by pushing for investment in dog parks, which is having positive ripple effects for the rest of parks.

Somerville pointed to the slew of new research on the health benefits of nature, arguing the science shows “humans are hard-wired for nature, and so urban communities are putting in green spaces wherever they can.” The research shows that spending time in nature “reduces blood pressure, releases all these good hormones, decreases stress levels, and these effects last a while.” The opportunity to spend time in an urban park is “precious.” In the future, she sees only “more opportunities to bring in nature” in underused urban edges, like damaged waterfronts, and even in underpass parks, which are being developed in a number of cities. The key will be making these places resilient to climate change, storm-proof respites that can also mitigate flooding and the urban heat island effect.

Park access must become more equitable, and Somerville and Harnik identified some communities showing the way forward. Somerville said “under-served areas are now turning post-industrial landscapes into resilient public spaces that people want to be in.” She pointed to Hunts Point Landing, a park that sprung up amid a polluted waterfront in the South Bronx, which has some of the highest asthma and obesity rates in New York City. And Harnik explained how New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio has shifted away from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s focus on the showcase parks like the High Line to invest in small parks in poorer neighborhoods.

GBCI Now Developing SITES AP


In a recent Green Business Certifications Inc. (GBCI) survey, 80 percent of respondents said they planned on implementing SITES® in their organization or practice, and 89 percent indicated interest in earning a professional credential, such as SITES Accredited Professional, or “SITES AP.” As a result, the development of SITES AP is currently under way at GBCI.

The new SITES AP credential will not only establish a common framework to define the profession of sustainable land design and construction, it will also provide landscape professionals with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, expertise, and commitment to the profession and will help scale up the market for SITES.

What is involved in the process of creating the SITES AP?

1. Conception: GBCI will bring together leading experts in the fields of sustainable landscape design to form a Job Analysis Committee. This committee will include landscape architects, planners, consultants, horticulturalists and water, soil, and human health specialists from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The committee will be responsible for creating content areas that lay the groundwork for building the SITES AP exam.

2. Validation: GBCI will enlist the help of a wider group of subject matter experts, who will review the content areas and their relative importance through the SITES AP Job Analysis Survey. The survey will give experts in the sustainable landscape community an opportunity to contribute to the SITES AP credential. GBCI will then gather and analyze results to create an exam blueprint, which will outline weight distribution for exam questions by content area.

3. Development: Once the blueprint is finalized, GBCI will enlist subject matter experts to write and review questions to appear on the SITES AP exam. With expert consensus, a well-rounded exam will be created and launched for the SITES AP credential. The exam will be finalized and placed into the testing platform for aspiring SITES AP candidates.

The SITES AP exam will be an important tool for all professionals practicing sustainable landscape design who are looking to grow their careers and impact the direction of land development and management.

If you would like to contribute as a subject matter expert and help write or review test questions that will shape the first generation of SITES APs, please fill out our call for volunteers survey to get involved.

We are also conducting an online job analysis survey to seek industry feedback on what a professional should know and do to perform competently as a SITES AP. Take the SITES AP Job Analysis Survey.

GBCI will begin offering testing for the SITES AP in October 2016.

For more information about the Sustainable Sites Initiative™, visit sustainablesites.org.

The Psychology of Color

Tiffany's blue / Tiffany's
Tiffany’s blue / Tiffany’s

“Color is like a mind-altering drug. It has the power to make us feel good, change perceptions, and create new connections,” said Laurie Pressman, who is in charge of Pantone’s Color Institute, at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. She urged designers to apply “color thinking to improve design.” But to do this, designers must first understand the brand they are designing for and the target audiences they hope to reach. Before going for the Pantone color book, they must answer the questions: “What does the brand stand for? What message does it want to convey?” Furthermore, to succeed in their quest to find the perfect color, designers must “throw away all the old color rules and use unique colors. Be bold and resonate with your audience and the broader culture.”

“Color defines our world. It makes up some 80 percent of the visual experience. The colors we see have both a psychological and physiological effect on us.” Brand colors are experienced in a largely intuitive sense — “just 5 percent of our reaction is rational.” So for any brand, selecting a color is one of the most important decisions they will make. “With infinite choices, brands really have about 3 seconds to grab attention.” Some firms have had incredible success with unique colors. Among luxury brands, Hermes’ orange color has become as recognizable as its logo. Tiffany’s robins-egg blue (seen above) is so recognizable that “you don’t even need to need to see the brand to know it’s them.”

While the psychology of color is always changing and people create new associations with both new and old colors, colors still have some essential qualities:

Blue is the dominant color and most universally accepted. It’s associated with respite and peacefulness, tranquility and constancy, dependability and trust. Many corporations use blue because it says “integrity and competence.” Blue is also about connecting, which is why a lot of information and communication technology firms, like Facebook, Twitter, Safari, and Skype, use it. Darker blues relay solidness and authority. Baby blues are sleep related, which is why Ritz Carlton’s recent brand revamp features this color. Electric blues are fresh and modern, with high-energy intensity. These colors appeal to young people because they read as “tech-savvy and forward thinking. It’s a signal color for the younger generation.”

Ritz Carlton's new brand / Under Consideration
Ritz Carlton’s new color palette / Under Consideration

The human eye can distinguish between 8-10 million greens because our earliest ancestors had to be able to easily see predators in the forest and savannah. But green relaxes and soothes us. Green’s refreshing and restorative and connotes youth and growth. Many skincare firms use green packaging to relay a sense of youth, regardless of whether their products actually make you look younger. Some firms use green to try to appeal healthier. In the European Union, McDonalds has rolled out a green logo to try to appear more healthy and sustainable, which are important to European consumers. Deeper greens are trustworthy and traditional, while teals are tasteful and confident, and light greens represent sanctuary.

McDonalds in Greece / DLG Studio
McDonalds in Greece / DLG Studio

Purple is associated with wealth and royalty. According to Wikipedia, “purple was the color worn by Roman magistrates; it became the imperial color worn by the rulers of the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, and later by Roman Catholic bishops. Similarly in Japan, the color is traditionally associated with the Emperor and aristocracy.” Purple, Pressman said, is an “artful balancing act between red and blue and can convey many messages.” In the 196os, the counter culture used purple. Think Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. David Bowie used purple to subvert authority, changing the color’s meaning for Glam Rock. Prince took a similar course with Purple Rain. Purple is a great “seamless” color that allows designers to meld into other shades. “It’s dependable, authoritative, but capable of transformation.” The BBC now uses purple for its logo.

Purple Rain / Loud and Clear UK
Purple Rain / Loud and Clear UK

Red is connected with blood and life itself. “It’s riveting and dramatic. It has an immediate effect and muscles out all other colors, so you have to be careful using it.” Red can be associated with evil and danger but also passion and romance. “It’s the most accepted bright color and crosses cultural barriers.” Red is high energy; we respond to it with our adrenal glands. “Just looking at red speeds our metabolism by 15 percent.” Red and black together send a strong psychological message of vitality and virility. Deeper reds are rich and refined and signify luxury.

Pink is playful, bold, and youthful, while light pink is sweet and innocent. “Interestingly, pink used to be the color for boys.” After World War II, pink came into its own as a color for the newly empowered female consumer. “Pink was imposed on women by our culture.” Think of the pink Cadillac for “the lady of the house.” Pink is now the color of breast cancer awareness. But neon pink is a bit tougher, used now used by womens rights protesters. And Pressman thinks this tougher pink is slowly becoming more male again. Firms like T Mobile, AirBNB, and Taco Bell are now using shades of dark pink.

Example of "protest pink" in Chicago / Red alert politics
Example of “protest pink” in Chicago / Red alert politics

Yellow has sparkle, heat, and vitality. It is connected with intellectual curiosity, and quick, clear decisions. It’s also frequently used in brands meant to appeal to kids. Pressman explained how Pantone worked closely with the producers of the film Minions to find the exact shade of yellow that kids would like the most. “We sifted through all these yellows with them.” She also said it was no surprise that Pharrell chose yellow for his song Happy, as it’s a “hopeful, optimistic color.” Beyond being kid-friendly though, yellow is also the most reflective color and attention grabbing. Yellow and black together are the single most visible color combinations.

Minions / Universal Pictures
Minions / Universal Pictures

Brown means stability, reliability, longevity. When UPS moved to a brown color palette, it quickly became the number-one package delivery service provider. “Brown is about returning to basics.” Pressman said shades that would have been seen as too dry and earthy 20 years ago are now luxurious. See Gucci brown.

Gucci packaging / Precious packaging UK
Gucci packaging / Precious packaging UK

White connotes innocence, purity, simplicity, and silence. It can be used to create a sense of pristine cleanliness and freshness. Many firms use white for cleaning products. Apple has used it to great effect to create a sense that their products are easy to use.

Black is empowering, and relates to both authority and submission. Black and gold is the most opulent color combination. Black and italics together especially connote luxury.

Orange is a symbol of fruitfulness but, like red, must be used sparingly, as it can easily overwhelm. It’s associated with vibrancy and promotes socialization and communication. Deeper orange relate to strength and authority, while corals grab attention. For many decades, orange was associated with fast food chains or Halloween, but now it’s globally accepted. Oranges, said Mikel Circus, who leads conceptual design and flavors for Firmenich, are also closely connected with flavor. So many Pantone oranges are named after citruses, for good reason. “We see orange and it’s a visual cue for a taste and smell.”

Circus and Pressman walked us through their predictive tools for anticipating future colors. Colors that we see today are actually about four years in the making. Circus explained that colors most often start with “inventors” in the world of technology, high design, and street fashion, then are picked up by “translators,” and then “transmitters” like Pantone that forecast the new colors. These new colors are then picked up by “early adopters,” like automobile companies, perfumiers, and fashion designers. Only then do they make it into advertisements in fashion magazines and are proclaimed as the hot new color by these magazines’ editors. These colors are then produced by all kinds of manufacturers, who spread these colors to the mainstream. “The street is a major source of innovation.”

Trend spotters like Circus and Pressman showed how a particular shade of orange — Flame Orange, PMS 1655 — spread from the streets to the mainstream in about four years. By 2012, it had become “Tangerine Tango,” a shade that is friendly, uplifting, playful, and vital. Focus groups reflected on the color and thought it was high in terms of “health, authenticity, and simplicity.” Understanding the values associated with the color among certain target audiences, Circus and Pressman can then help firms use the color to create products these consumers will buy. “We package a dream, but rely on consumers” to tell us what that dream is.

1655 / Pantone
1655 / Pantone

Circus and Pressman told designers to apply some key principles when working with color: “dig in new lands; think like an outsider; and define emotional touch points.” But they reiterated that designers must “understand the psychology of color first before applying it to a brand.” The end-goal should really be a “consumer-designed product.”

Houston’s Green Makeover Only Reaches Some Neighborhoods

Busy freeway flyovers above Buffalo Bayou Park near Downtown Houston / SWA Group
Busy freeway flyovers above Buffalo Bayou Park near Downtown Houston / SWA Group

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s recent conference in Houston comes a time when the “car-centric, zoning-averse city,” as TCLF president and CEO Charles Birnbaum described it in a recent Huffington Post article, is receiving national acclaim for its public spaces and parks. As Mimi Schwartz wrote in The Texas Monthly, “Houston doesn’t look like Houston anymore.” It has “become fanatically green. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on this extreme makeover. And ‘you can’t believe you’re in Houston’ has replaced ‘it’s not as bad as you think,’ as an unofficial motto.”

This was the context for the conference, Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation, held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which highlighted uncomfortable but perhaps unavoidable truths about the character of Houston’s green transformation — that access to green space, which was largely made possible through public-private partnerships (PPPs), with an emphasis on private financing, is growing but remains highly inequitable.

Birnbaum first identified lingering perceptions that Houston is “built on private interests” with “light-handed planning” and remains an “inchoate community with little available public space.” He traced some of these perceptions back to Calvin Trillin’s 1975 New Yorker essay, “On the Possibility of Houstonization.”

This perception remains. Despite the city’s deeply rich investment in parks and public spaces during the last decade, many Houstonians in attendance still move around in their cars in a city that comprises 676 square miles, as Joe Turner, Director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, pointed out during his introductory remarks. (Stressing, in the next breath, that this means “lots of opportunities for landscape architects.”)

Later, Bill Fulton, who directs the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, took an informal poll of the audience, asking how many arrived via transit at the museum, which is next to a stop on the city’s main light rail line. Three people, Fulton included, out of more than 300 hundred raised their hands. This was underscored by a fact shared by Birnbaum: 75 percent of Houston was built after the end of World War II, when the car assumed precedence in American life. Now, Houston boasts the signature public spaces that were the darlings of the day, but it also boasts about the widest freeway in the world, the Katy Freeway, and three ring roads, the most recent of which, the Grand Parkway, now under construction, is well on its way to a grand total of 170 miles around — good for the longest beltway in the country. Houstonization, indeed.

So, any analysis of the city has to take into consideration former Rice School of Architecture Dean Lars Lerup’s formulation of “stim and dross” in the “suburban metropolis,” which he described in his book, After the City. At the conference, the “dross” of Houston’s chain retail, low-slung apartment complexes, and four-lane thoroughfares that lie outside the increasingly urban Loop 610 — where most of those 676 square miles are — was never mentioned. But the “stim,” or “areas of stimulation,” as Lerup has it, was heavily praised, especially in the first panel, moderated by architectural historian Stephen Fox. Panelists went through the design and planning of these examples of stim — Hermann Park, Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou Park, and the Menil Collection.

Discovery Green, designed by Hargreaves Associates, opened the conference up to one of the major themes of the day: the public-private partnership, or PPP, as it was referred to throughout the day. As Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, senior principal and president of Hargreaves Associates, noted, Discovery Green was “part of a plan to bring high-rise residential” to what had been “a sea of parking” and “a few scraggly oak trees” around the George R. Brown Convention Center, completed in the ‘80s. Thus, a number of interests were invested in creating what Jones called a “memorable, transformational place.” Her point about the power of the PPP was anticipated earlier by Keiji Asakura, FASLA, principal and founder of Asakura Robinson, in his welcome address: “What is so unique about Houston?” he asked. “The one word is PPP. That’s certainly been the key in changing the dialogue.” The first parks in Houston, according to Birnbaum, were privately funded.

The second panel moved on to discuss projects now in development. Chip Trageser, FASLA, principal at The Office of James Burnett, detailed improvements to Levy Park, positioned now as a kind of Discovery Green for the Upper Kirby neighborhood, an affluent area northwest of Rice University. Douglas Reed, FASLA, partner at Reed Hilderbrand; Steven Spears, FALSA, principal and partner at Design Workshop; and Thomas Woltz, FALSA, principal and owner, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, all discussed their work at Memorial Park, a park twice as large as Central Park that is subject to the extremes of Houston’s volatile climate — severe flooding during Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the worst drought in the history of Texas in 2013, killing tens of thousands of trees. NBWLA is creating a master plan for the park, adding 38 miles of trails, and restoring, at a massive scale, the park’s decimated tree canopy with “memorial groves” of pines, while Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand are creating new master plans for its Arboretum and Nature Center.

Rendering of land bridge for Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
Rendering of land bridge for Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Notable during this panel, moderated by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, dean at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, was the presentation by Jamie Maslyn Larson, ASLA, partner at West 8 New York, on the Houston Botanic Garden. This was the one green space presented at the conference to be funded entirely through private money, and it was the one outside Loop 610. (Maslyn said it was “proximate to Downtown,” but it’s a 20-minute drive, at least.) Though the PPP was still a large part of the discussion for these projects, a second theme began to emerge, especially with regard to the West 8 master plan for the Botanic Garden: equity, or, in this case, equal access to green space for everyone.

In the third and final panel, moderated by Christopher Knapp, co-founder and CEO of Chilton Capital Management, attempted to address this theme of equity. That morning, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, managing principal at SWA Group, the firm behind Buffalo Bayou Park, noted a divide between the east and west sides of Houston. The only public space on the east side of town discussed during the conference is West 8’s Botanic Garden, though SWA Group and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the conservancy in charge of the improvements, have begun to extend their work on the city’s signature bayou east into historically under-served neighborhoods.

Because the bayous run east to west, Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Energy Partners, touted the potential of the Houston Parks Board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 plan to right the wrong of park inequity. The ambitious plan, which is funded through a PPP, is to build 150 miles of hike and bike trails along Houston’s original infrastructure: bayous. A recent update to that plan that Houston Chronicle arts, design, and culture reporter Molly Glentzer called a “green grid” would connect more hike and bike trails on utility corridors and other north-south easements to the east-west-running bayous. Skelly stressed that the bayous “go through all neighborhoods.”

Cyclist on White Oak Bayou Greenway north of Downtown, Houston / Houston Parks Board
Cyclist on White Oak Bayou Greenway north of Downtown, Houston / Houston Parks Board

The ambition of the design and breadth of investment by PPPs in parks and public spaces in the affluent areas of “car-centric, zoning-averse” Houston is, arguably, what attracted TCLF to Houston in the first place. But the conference concluded with questions about repeating these efforts in neighborhoods where private money doesn’t flow as abundantly. This is a tension that Fox touched on in his introduction to the first panel: the power of PPPs reveal a relative lack of power and vulnerability on the part of the city to design, pay for, build, and maintain signature parks on its own, without the oomph of philanthropy. Thus, some of the same inequities afflicting the city at large — lack of access to affordable housing and public transit, heavier pollution in some neighborhoods, and food deserts in others — remain as true for access to parks. Though anyone is welcome at Discovery Green or Memorial Park, these remain destinations, not neighborhood parks. Now we know it to be true, just as Charles Moore wrote: you have to pay for the public life.

This guest post is by Allyn West, staff writer and assistant director of communications, Rice Design Alliance.